What Our Culture Gets Wrong About Trigger Warnings

The ever-fraught debate over trigger warnings and safe spaces on college campuses landed back in the news last week when The University of Chicago took a particularly hard-line stance on the issue, stating:

trigger warnings

The letter stirred up predictably fervent opinions on both sides, from those who righteously defended it to those who challenged and even satirized it. Now, a week later, I’m left wondering: Has anything changed? And can it, when this long-running debate plays out along the same lines every time?

If we want to truly make progress on the issue of trigger warnings, maybe it’s time we challenge the very way the debate is consistently framed.

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The University of Chicago statement tapped into the same themes that these statements always do: themes based on ideas of strength and weakness. The university presented those who are pro-trigger warnings as “retreating,” due to fear of differing perspectives and ideas, unable to manage a simple “challenge” or “even discomfort.” Meanwhile, it presented itself as strong and resolute, committed to the highest values of freedom and truth, even at the expense of making people upset. This narrative was echoed in articles defending the university’s decision, which framed the institution as “standing up” against “tender feelings,” and the institutions and people supporting such warnings as “timorous” and “spoiled babies.”

This narrative persists outside college campuses, too. From prominent media outlets writing about the “coddling of the American mind,” to prominent comedians mocking political correctness, to theologists espousing the religious value of exposing people to “the real world,” the story is always the same: Those who ask for sensitive language are weak; those who take a stand against it are strong.

But what if this culturally sanctioned narrative is all wrong? What if survivors of trauma are the real powerful, brave ones . . . while those oppressing them do so from a place of weakness?

I believe we, the trauma survivors, are not only so much stronger than how they perceive us — we are stronger than them, because we fight harder than they will ever have to.

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The people typically in need of safe spaces and trigger warnings are those who have endured trauma — be it rape, sexual violence, spiritual abuse, mental illnesses, relentless racism, LGBTQ discrimination, sexism, or any number of other contributing factors. There are varying degrees of traumatization, of course, but in general, many, many people suffer — often in the shadows. At least 70% of adults in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event at least once in their lives, and an estimated 7.8% of Americans will experience PTSD at some point in their lifetimes.

And make no mistake: For those who have been traumatized, it requires extraordinary strength to fight a battle every day with no reprieve.

Contrary to what the University of Chicago and others would have you believe, this isn’t a matter of “discomfort”; symptoms of trauma can include night terrors, shortness of breath, headaches, depression, and maladies including “gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, neurological, musculoskeletal, respiratory, and dermatological disorders; urological problems; and substance use disorders.”

Surviving in our world with these symptoms requires a flexing of muscles that others simply do not use — a strength that can’t possibly be fathomed by those releasing letters from the ivory tower of the University of Chicago, or for that matter, by anyone who has had the good fortune to never experience the debilitating side effects of trauma.

Personally, I find it difficult to explain how every day is a fight — I just know I’m succeeding because I’m still here, and know I’m stronger because things aren’t quite as difficult as they used to be. I’ve written before about my experience with sexual coercion, and how that, combined with a childhood in which I experienced variations of unwanted touch, has made me susceptible to painful triggering. When I see, hear, or read about violations of consent, unwanted touch (in all forms), and the gaslighting that consistently accompanies such incidents, I feel hands on me — it’s as if they’ve never left my skin.

A warning or note at the beginning of a piece or video goes a long way in aiding my management of such trauma symptoms; prohibiting these tools removes my consent and can potentially trigger a re-living of past trauma, with all the psychological and physical repercussions that encompasses. This is not about me, or anyone who’s been traumatized, being weak; it’s about affording us autonomy and agency.

It’s nearly impossible not to internalize the victim-blaming that is all around us; indeed, our culture reminds us every day that victims do not matter, that the tools designed to aid us in managing our biological conditions “coddle minds” and threaten freedom. And so, we become survivors because there are no other options. We fight another day. We work to not re-live painful events. We re-train our minds and bodies so we can move through a world that neither sees us nor recognizes our needs.

If we really want to move forward on the issue of trigger warnings, we must discard the conventional cultural script, and embrace this salient fact: We, the traumatized, are stronger than the powerful entities oppressing us ever will be. And we are worthy of being recognized and respected in our struggles.

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Lead image: flickr/Swati Sani

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